Michael Higgins "Henri Nouwen - Impressively Free" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you something new that will enhance your knowledge of the writings of Henri Nouwen. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us reach more people. Our goal is to allow the wisdom, honesty, and encouragement found in the life and the writings of Henri Nouwen to speak to a world hungry for meaning. Now, let me take time to introduce today’s special program.
Today my guest is Michael Higgins author of the new book Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood. Michael Higgins is an author, a scholar, and an educator. He’s the Vatican Affairs specialist for the Globe and Mail, the Papal Commentator for the CTV network and a CBC radio documentarian. In fact, I have before me one of the books that was so very successful, you wrote Genius, Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen and that became an award-winning radio documentary. Michael has also served as the President and Vice Chancellor of two Canadian Catholic universities and as Vice President for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He’s currently the Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University. Michael has been a great friend to the Henri Nouwen Society. We know him as a scholar who teaches Henri Nouwen and who was the author, as I said, of Genius Born of Anguish. But today we are here to talk about this new book, Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood. What do you mean by that?
Michael Higgins: Well, that’s a good question. And of course it’s at the heart of the whole book, Karen. When Kevin Burns, my producer for so many years, and I were thinking about what would we do as a follow-up for A Genius Born of Anguish we decided that it wasn’t enough to write another biographical narrative. There are many out there and he’s been well served by this. I think we know the larger ligaments of the Nouwen biography, we don’t need to spend a great deal of time rehashing them. So we decided, well, where does Henri’s significance lie for our time? And in spirituality no question, deeply ecumenical, perhaps in some cases profoundly interfaith. But there’s another significance to his life in this witness and we wanted to explore that because it hadn’t been done.
And that’s this: the contemporary Roman Catholic church is, quite frankly, in a bit of a mess. Pope Francis, more than anyone has underscored the need for reform within the church. He’s the reforming Pope. One of the highlights of the current crisis, but maybe highlights isn’t the right word, but one of the strongest negative features of the current ecclesial reality that is the Roman Catholic Church is the bankruptcy of its clerical ranks. And I don’t mean that as an indictment or a judgment of all priests, by no means. Many priests have lived exemplary lives, continue to live those lives and witness meaningfully and credibly. But the priesthood is in real crisis in the Catholic Church. And there are some who would argue that yes, well everyone would agree that clericalism is the problem, but nobody seems to agree to the definition of clericalism and nobody seems to know what to do with it. So we thought, well, why don’t we look for somebody, a model of priestly ministry who was not only hugely successful in a way, but could be an iconic figure that could provide a template for other priests of the next generation to say, yes, this is the way I want to minister in the church.
So we looked at Henri in terms of his ministry, his priestly ministry, very specifically that and we discovered what we knew intuitively would be the case almost from the outset. And that is that Henri never sat down to write a theological treatise on the priesthood. He never saw himself as a model for priesthood. He just lived his priesthood through his deep spirituality. They were connected. And when you look at his writings and you begin to see in his correspondence and interviews that he gave, that he was quite concerned that his own seminary training way back in the 1950s, didn’t train him in spirituality and they didn’t train him in the art of intimacy. He came out ill prepared for the world. If that was true in the 1950s, it is even more dramatically true in our own time. Many of our priests are not trained in the spiritual life and they’re not trained to feel comfortable and intimate with others.
Now, I don’t mean by that erotic intimacy, I don’t mean they would have affairs with people, I simply mean that they would be comfortable in the affective way. Nouwen modeled that. He rarely wore a Roman collar, he lived among and with the people that he celebrated Eucharist with. Eucharist was for him kind of the consummation of the week, he brought them together, he shared life with them. He didn’t rest on any kind of specious entitlement. He didn’t think of himself as a species apart, as some kind of strange ontological creature that has Holy Orders and therefore he is different from everybody. He didn’t think like that at all. He thought in terms of the radical equality of the gospel and he was a priest to minister to people, to bring them together, to be a bridge, which was what priesthood to a great deal is about, bridge building. And he did that. He brought them together. So we worked on this book tracing Nouwen’s understanding of what it means to be a priest right from the beginning even before he went to the seminary, right through the end of his life when he was writing letters just shortly before he died. But also looking at it in the grander scheme, the bigger backdrop, Henri over against a church in huge turbulence.
Karen: Now you’ve talked about the problem of clericalism and it’s not really a phrase I understand. Help me understand what, how – it’s one thing to see Henri as a model, it’s another thing to say, how do we then replicate that? And if we see it as valuable, what do we do to create that?
Michael: Well, that’s good. That’s a logistics question. Let me give the definition of clericalism first. I think there’s general agreement that clericalism means the notion that clerics, in other words, priests and deacons– those in Holy Orders — are an entitled dimension of the church. They’re not on the same level as lay people. They have special perks, also special responsibilities, but they have a certain elevated spiritual luster. Well, none of that is true of course, it’s an artificial creation. Priests are called to ministry. They’re called to be servants, not called be to be served. And they’re certainly not a species apart. That’s been very destructive of Catholic understanding of priesthood. So the problems we have– and they are significant– of clerical sex abuse which is not over, the tsunami is not finished, is in large part attributable, I think, to the failure of the church to provide the kind of humanistic formation that is necessary. Plus the fact that we put them in seminaries where they live largely apart. And although they may share some classes with others, they live largely apart. They think of themselves largely apart. They operate within a particular ethos. And then after several years, we spit them out of the system. And then we wonder why we have clericalism. Well, we’ve shaped them and molded them to think of themselves precisely this way. So it seems to me that the only way forward is to demolish the seminary, to look at other ways of educating people for the priesthood.
You see the problem is, Karen, that clericalism and priesthood are not the same thing, but clericalism is like a toxin, it’s got into the system. And so it’s corrupted the priesthood from within. So the argument of cleansing the priesthood by finding a different template to educate priests for the future is finding a way to allow them to be more fully themselves, more fully human, more fully comfortable with their affective needs, more fully affective in the community in which they work.
And one of the examples we used was the French Worker Movement of the 1940s. The French hierarchy, Catholic hierarchy, canvased the scene and they realized, look, France is a very Catholic country. In fact it bears the title of the eldest daughter of the church. But since the French revolution it has never been quite that way, and what happened was the bishops looked and they said, well, the middle classes, the industrial classes, these people are lost to the church. You know, we have some of the aristocrats, we have some of the great owners of farmland. We have various artists and intellectuals and converts and academics and mystics and all this, but the vast majority of the Catholic laity in France have been lost to the church, have been de-Christianized. We need to re-Christianize them.
So the bishops in a very bold way chose various priests or priests volunteered and they sent them out to live and work with the people. And so they would work in a Renault factory for cars and they’d wear the uniform of a Renault worker. And then they would celebrate Eucharist in the Pensions, the tenements with the people and whatnot. Now eventually of course, they fell in love with some of the people they were working with. Rome became increasingly anxious about the breakdown of the barrier between clergy and lay people and the movement was eventually suppressed — not entirely, because there are outcroppings in France even to this day, some people who still kind of think in the priest worker model. But it seems to me that that’s one of the only ways of moving forward.
Educating priests for the future we have excellent models in the Protestant schools of divinity. You’re familiar with the Yale School of Divinity where Henri taught for nearly 10 years. That’s a perfect training ground for future priests. We don’t need isolated seminaries where they mingle only amongst themselves and they live according to strange rules and regulations of a different era. So it seems to me that Henri managed to move out of the clerical stranglehold that clericalism had, and he moved into a freer ministry. He was impressively free. He was comfortable being the priest that he was because he didn’t see himself conforming to a narrow model. He saw that to be the most effective priest he had to be the most deeply integrated human being he could be. So his humanity didn’t get in the way of his priesthood. It was the way by which he could flavor and enrich and define himself as a priest. We think we need that template now, we think Henri is the perfect model for it.
Karen: Oh, I love that. I just love it. It’s interesting to me, you know, on Henri’s books, he didn’t put Father Henri Nouwen he put Henri J.M. Nouwen. And when he was asked what the J.M. was, it was ‘just me’ Nouwen. So there was an element of kind of stepping back from that sense of having authority, even I think as a professor or as a priest or whatever, and being accessible and that whole business about making your own wounds accessible to others and out of that, there’s this deep connecting that we have with other people. I love your title, Impressively Free. I love it. And if that is something of a vision for priesthood into the future, it’s very exciting. It really kind of puts you on the cutting edge. Tell me, how does Pope Francis feel about this kind of concept? Is he ready to throw away all the seminaries?
Michael: Well, I think he’s prepared to do a number of radical things actually. One of the reasons why there are a not insignificant number of Roman Catholics that are quite opposed to Francis is because he thinks in a different way, Karen. He thinks outside the traditional clerical box, and he’s prepared to take bold initiatives where other Popes have taken tepid ones or timorous ones or tentative ones. Francis is unpredictable and he believes in the radicality of the gospel. His primary commitment of course, is to a church of the poor for the poor made up of the poor. So I mean priesthood is at the service of the poor. So he hasn’t got to the point where he’s thinking as seriously as I would like him to think about the reformation of priesthood itself. He certainly understands that it needs to be spiritually rejuvenated. He certainly has come to understand the enormity of the reputation of damage done to priests by sexual abuse and the misuse of power. He understands that. He’s taken initiatives, not to everybody’s satisfaction, but he’s taken several initiatives.
The next level it seems to me, has to actually come from bishops who have the courage and the imagination to think of doing things differently. I mean having a seminary was for a very long time, what bishops wanted to do because it impressed Rome. Rome was always impressed by those bishops who were generators of vocations and having seminaries was a good thing to do. It does seem to me we have to get out of that particular mentality and think more clearly about it. It isn’t the desperate need for priests at any cost that should be a driving factor of the church’s leadership. It should be, how do we get the very best priests in a way that they can minister in the most credible way to their community? And I think one of the ways we can do this– and I think the Anglicans provide us with an excellent model for this– is the introduction of the non-stipendiary priest.
The argument so often has been in the Catholic Church, ‘How can we afford to have priests who are married with their children, when Catholics are so stinting in their giving?’ Catholics are among the most reluctant to give. There’s a whole history of this I’m afraid in terms of support of a local parish. They can be quite giving in other areas, but very often pastors quite justifiably complain they can barely make ends meet. And as a consequence, if you go to a Mass with a Catholic, unlike many Protestants who tithe or who give generously when they go, Catholics tend to give rather stintingly unless there’s a particular appeal.
Now that argument held some water. When you consider that the revenue coming into a parish would be insufficient to support a family, but it falls apart very quickly if you distinguish between vocation and career. And it does seem to me that’s what we need to do. Henri Nouwen’s career was as a psychologist and as a teacher, his vocation was as a priest. So he earned his own income. He was able to be self-sustaining, to know the rudiments of managing a budget. I mean, I know he wasn’t the most practical person in the world, but he had to develop some skills in living alone. And so what he did was -you have the career over here and you have the vocation over here and you work to bring them together, which he did, particularly at Eucharist.
And you have an excellent arrangement. I don’t see why the large number of parochial clergy that we have, that means the regular diocesan priests, (not the religious order priests – It’s a slightly different matter, they have both their charisms and their strength and their weaknesses as well, but they’re different than the diocesan clergy, why they shouldn’t have a job). I mean, why couldn’t they be mechanics or physicians or psychologists or teachers or whatever. And then their priesthood is their way of living out their Christian witness rather than this system that we have, where the priests are apart, they’re educated apart, they increasingly live alone. There’s lots of evidence that they have insufficient opportunity to develop levels of psychosexual maturity, hence the problems we continue to face and will face for a while. So we need not to tinker with the system, we need to rethink the system because we do have a lot of very good priests. But they are priests who have broken out of the stranglehold of clericalism like Henri did, that are comfortable in their skin. But if you’re particularly a young priest and your identity is tied up with this sacerdotal notion of being called specifically by God. And you have a different ontological or ontic status and that’s going to be your witness. Give it 10 to 15 years and you’ll see crisis big time. We already see it.
Karen: Well, Michael, you know, I love your work. I love your enthusiasm. You’re radical, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s quite exciting to see how this is going to evolve. People, you need to get this book. Impressively Free is really interesting and Michael’s got great insights into Henri Nouwen. Fortunately he wrote, the first one was obviously this Genius Born of Anguish, beautiful title for it. And I can tell you that Michael has taught seminars, taught courses, taught retreats all over the world on Henri. So we will be sure and post it on our website when he’s teaching somewhere, because we treasure him. We know he’s a brilliant man. And I want to see you buy the book. I think you’ll enjoy it. Impressively Free: Henry Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood. Michael, you’re quite brilliant and you’re quite wonderful. And thank you for your enthusiasm that you bring to Henri. You bring it as an academic and you bring it as a person of passion and understanding and wisdom for our times. And I really appreciate that.
Michael: I would just like to end on this point to show you that there is some hope for change already. Karen, I’ve been appointed the Director for a PhD dissertation by a young priest from Zambia on Nouwen and the priesthood. And I’m just very thrilled with that because it’s a sign that the interest and reflection on what this means and what this can mean and how important it can be as a fermenting agent for change in the Catholic churches. I think a wonderful sign on the horizon, a wonderful hope on the horizon.
Karen: Excellent. Good. Thank you, Michael. Thank you for being with us.
Thank you for taking time to listen. I hope you come away from this as inspired and moved as I was. If you enjoy today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your friends and family. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes for our website and any content, resources or books discussed in this episode. There’s even a link to books to get you started in case you are new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks for listening, until next time.
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